I’m cooking a Bolognese at present, and mulling over the process of writing, and creativity in general. Nigella Lawson mentioned in an interview that she found the repetitive actions of cooking – peeling, chopping, stirring, mixing – highly therapeutic, a way to let her mind relax and let go of other concerns. And I find this to be true with writing: it’s when I’m involved in mindless repetitive acts, that my thoughts are freed to go off on journeys of exploration, and I discover that I’m absorbed in a scene, a conversation, a piece of action. It’s like giving my mind the space to be itself. When I’m stuck, I’ll take myself off and weed the paths or bake a cake, anything that will let my mind go into freefall and find the answer that actually has been lurking there waiting to be discovered all along, it’s simply that everyday concerns have put it in the shadows. (This isn’t true of ironing or dusting, which are both so abhorrent there ought to be an EU directive banning them).
As to the process of putting words onto paper, I’ve tried many methods. Straight onto PC; writing in long hand then typing it up; writing with a detailed plan; writing with no plan at all, just a vague idea what the book’s about. All of them bring their own joys and difficulties. Writing with a detailed plan is fabulous if you want to write very quickly and don’t have time to explore new aspects of the story. If you have a scheme with all the characters carefully drawn, all the plot points timed, all the scenes and chapters set out precisely with their purpose, main event, who’s on stage, all you need to do then is write the words. It works; but it I find sticking to this method very restrictive, and one thing that I love about the process of writing is the surprises, the times when you’re writing and suddenly the characters go off on their own, the plot twists, and I go off into a strange state of consciousness where I feel I’m not really writing at all but channelling something that’s already been written. It’s the most glorious, liberating and exciting feeling. However, the second draft is hard work: pruning all those free flow sentences and taming the wayward characters who decided that really the story was all about them and threatened to derail it.
Embarking with only a vague idea of what the story is all about is thrilling, writing by the seat of your pants, high octane, dangerous. You need to be prepared to crash and burn. Getting to the end is tough, and if you do get that far, oh the agony of the rewrite. It needs to be put away in a dark room for at least a month while cold, hard realism and an editor’s eye replace the jubilation, and then you put your finger on the delete key and keep it there.
When I wrote Sacred Site, I had a detailed plan of the characters and the plot, and I had the chapters and scenes mapped out in reasonable detail, but when I came to write it, I still had enough flexibility to allow the characters to develop in ways I hadn’t envisaged, to bring in new characters, and to include more episodes from the past that impact on the present. I wrote direct onto PC, and rewrote only after I’d completed a full first draft. I’m currently working on another thriller, and I’ve used a different method for this one, writing in full in long hand, and then editing and rewriting as I type it up. It’s pretty grim, to be honest, to be faced with several spiral bound notebooks full of my frankly incomprehensible scrawl to be typed out, and I think in future that I’ll still write in long hand but type up at the end of each chapter.
Long hand? Long hand! You technophobe, Kim! I can hear the screaming from here. I love writing in long hand, for several reasons: I write more slowly, so my thoughts have time to gather before I scribble them down; I can write anywhere, anytime: on the train, in bed, in cafes; and all I need are a pen and a bit of paper. I use a fountain pen (stop groaning), simply because I like the feel of it and my writing is much more legible if in fountain pen. Biro is a total non starter; I might as well write with my feet. I tend to curl up on the settee to write, perching my notebook on my lap, and regularly shoving the cat off the notebook (she gets comfy and goes to sleep) and dissuading her from chewing my pen while I’m writing. I like to have the radio or TV on in the background. I never hear a word of it, I get so absorbed in what I’m writing, but I find it comforting, almost as if I’m kidding myself I’m not actually writing, I’m listening to the radio and there just so happens to be a notebook on my knee.
It’s the absorption I need, it’s the reason I write. Every writer will be familiar with this situation: you’re at a party, talking to a relative stranger, and you’ve diffidently confessed that you do a bit of writing. The relative stranger announces, “Oh, I’ve always thought I’d like to be a writer.”
Me: “What kinds of things do you write?”
Relative stranger: “I’ve never actually written anything. I just don’t have the time, but I’d love to be a writer.”
Now, I presume they don’t have similar conversations with brain surgeons and engineers? Writing, like all other occupations, needs a period of apprenticeship. You can’t just do it, you have to learn how to do it, and how to get better at doing it; and for that you’ve got to find time to invest. And it helps if you don’t write because you like to, but because you’ve got to. Why else would you get up early so you can write for an hour before you go to work? Because you have to; it’s a drug; you need your fix. Maybe it’s because real life is so uncertain that the ability to meddle in other people’s lives (even though fictional) is a way of exerting control in a wayward world, and that’s the compulsion.
OK, Bolognese sauce bubbling away nicely, off to do a different kind of stirring. Until tomorrow, Kim